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Write for the Web

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Well-structured and informative content that follows basic formatting guidelines ensures that your website is well-organized, clearly understandable to readers, and accessible to people with disabilities.

Such guidelines provide the added benefit of making your site more findable and promotable since Google and other search engines "see" pages that are well-formatted better than those that aren't. Creating well-structured content requires the usage of some basic patterns and strategies. 

Write easy-to-read text

Use plain language

The content on your site should be written as clearly and simply as possible. This helps visitors with reading disabilities and non-native English speakers. It also makes it easier for visitors to scan.

This helps to meet WCAG 3.1.5 Reading Level.

Resources for plain language

Chunk your content

As you write content for the web, we recommend that your paragraphs remain short and broken up by headings, as this increases the likelihood that your content will be scanned and read through. As noted on, "Writing for the Web" is quite different from writing for print. And, as described by Jakob Nielson in "Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web)":

"People read 25% slower onscreen, and they skim rather than reading. Web text should be short, scannable..."

Consider only including a small portion of the text you would include for print, in your online version. And, always, always, break up those walls of text.

As suggested by the Nielson Norman Group, breaking content into groups of information is an idea that comes from cognitive psychology. Humans — their eyes and their brains — find information easier to understand when broken down into meaningful chunks. Think about the structure of a phone number or your social security number.

Activating this human cognitive function in long forms of texts can dramatically increase the likelihood that your content will be scanned, read through, and retained — especially on the web. Writing your content into chunks aids natural user behavior and can increase user satisfaction with your website. 

Use "Paragraphs"

Our Stanford Sites Drupal platform provides several Paragraph Types to increase the ability to chunk information in visually compelling and unique ways. Paragraph Types can be used to increase visual hierarchy and contrast, and create a variety between primary and supplementary content.

Learn more about Paragraphs.

Use text styles judiciously

Stanford Sites provides a variety of styles you can use on your text. Using these styles consistently but judiciously can increase the ease of scanning content for your user. And when it comes to writing for the web, creating content that is easy to scan is your priority.

Learn more about adding styling to text.

Use structured content

Your Stanford Sites website uses HTML (HyperText Markup Language) code to give meaning to the structure of your content. HTML defines this structure using elements such as headings and lists. These elements allow customized styling, and convey the page structure to assistive technology such as screen readers.

Headings and page titles

Headings increase the ability to scan content visually, and for this reason alone, they are a critical part of your website. Further, creating hierarchical headings throughout your text content impacts — arguably — three, even more, important considerations:

  • Semantic structure accuracy
  • SEO
  • Accessibility

Headings are HTML tags that are used to divide sections of a page. The number in each heading indicates its level in the content’s hierarchy. By default, your page titles will be formatted as a Heading 1. The following header should be an H2, followed by an h3 if needed. The content within the hierarchy of the heading sections should be related.

Heading types

  • Heading 1: Page title
  • Heading 2: Sub-head (added in content)
  • Heading 3: Grouping or title within Sub-head (added in content)
  • Heading 4: Grouping or title within grouping (added in content)

Basic patterns and strategies for headings

  • Keep headings short: skip unneeded words like “How do I...” or “Read how to...”
  • But not too short: include keywords to ensure people will understand the context of this page and facilitate searching by headers.
  • Keep it simple: avoid jargon and technical terms if possible.
  • Use sentence case for readability. (Page titles can be in title case if desired.)
  • Ensure all page titles in your site are unique.

Learn more about headings

Use tables for data

Tables should only be used to display tabular data. In the past, tables were sometimes used to layout content on a page. These layout tables make it harder to navigate using a screen reader and don't work well on mobile devices.

Use both table row and column headers

To understand the content in a particular cell, it's necessary to know both the column and row headers. To make these available to assistive technology such as screen readers, the first row and column need to be designated as headers.

Learn more about tables

Explain media

When a media item contains pictures of text, a chart or graph, or other important information, you'll want use alternative (alt) text to describe what you see and explain its importance.

Learn more about alt text

Explain acronyms

Be sure to provide an expansion or explanation of an abbreviation the first time it is used on a content page, so all readers understand its full meaning before subsequent use of an abbreviation or acronym. You can represent an abbreviation or acronym in your HTML with element <abbr>. See Call out abbreviations with <abbr>.

Learn more about acronyms

Call out other languages

If the text in your website uses multiple languages, you'll want to indicate what language is being displayed. The lang attribute is used to identify chunks of text in a language that is different from the document’s primary language. 

Learn more about the lang attribute